Let’s Can the Canned Food Drive – Questions and Answers

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and in the U.S. it means the start of the traditional season for addressing the needs of hungry families. As in years past, thousands of donors will give cans and packaged food to local food drives in their neighborhoods in order to work towards alleviating those needs.

But if what donors care about is providing enough food for the growing number of hungry families across the United States, there is a better way.

An LA Times opinion editorial written jointly by our own Kat Rosqueta, Executive Director of the Center, and John Arnold, the former executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, describes how donors can dramatically reduce the number of hungry families this holiday season by making small financial donations instead of providing cans.

The op-ed has received an overwhelming amount of feedback and attention from around the country, has been reprinted by newspapers in several other cities, and was the subject of several radio interviews including Talk of the Nation.

To address public interest, we have compiled the following list of the most frequently asked questions, along with our answers:

Q: With cans, I know that I’m providing food. But with a financial donation, how do I know that my money will actually go towards purchasing food, instead of to other purposes (such as padding a nonprofit executive’s pockets!)?

Many potential donors are concerned that their money go towards its intended purpose. This  concern is not specific to nonprofit, emergency food providers. Luckily, for donors interested in providing emergency food, there is a very easy way to address this concern: Make a financial contribution directly to a charitable agency’s account at the area’s regional food bank. Once the funds are in its account at the food bank, the local provider can only draw against those funds by using that money to acquire food.

Q: I find it hard to believe that hungry families would throw away food – doesn’t that mean that they are doing well enough that they aren’t truly in need?

Every family is different. The age of the family members, health conditions, religious and cultural prohibitions are just some of the reasons why food that is provided to hungry families may go unused. For example, if a member of the family has high blood pressure, that person cannot eat high sodium canned soup or packaged ramen noodles. If a child has a nut allergy, that child may not be able to eat packaged food containing nuts or processed in a facility with nuts. Since many poor families also lack access to healthcare or enough money to purchase required medicines, eating inappropriate food can have serious consequences.

Q: If displaying donated food in a “client choice” model is enough to increase efficiency by 50%, why shouldn’t I just keep donating cans? Shouldn’t the burden be on the charity agency to change its model?

The best providers can manage the mix of donations and purchased food to provide choice to clients, thereby reducing potential waste. But in most communities, the gap between the amount of food aid that is needed and the amount that is currently being distributed is so large that additional pick-ups in efficiency are needed. This is where donor practices can help.

Making a financial donation, instead of a food donation, can drop a community’s costs by as much as 25% in tax savings for donors. But the really big impact comes from agencies acquiring their food from the area’s food bank instead of from the grocery store. Thanks to donated and discounted food provided by the food industry, such donations can increase a community’s capacity to address hunger by as much as 20 times!  There are many examples of food pantries around the country who used to struggle to cobble together as much as 50,000-100,000 lbs. of food per year, but now can distribute well over a million pounds of food aid per year after making the switch to food bank purchasing.

While it will take some time for all food agencies to switch over to a “client choice” model, you can multiply your individual donation’s impact right away by changing how you donate – at no additional cost to you.

Q: I have extra cans that I can spare at the holidays, but I don’t have loads of cash to spare. Why shouldn’t I donate cans instead of money that I don’t have?

If donors don’t have enough money to provide a financial contribution – but do have cans – then by all means, donate the can! You certainly still have the option to donate your extra cans to food banks, and food banks will appreciate your contribution. But when people make an additional shopping trip in order to buy cans exclusively for donations, they should know: if they buy a can at the retail price, they can feed one person. If they donate the monetary cost of a can, they can extend their generosity to multiple families.

At the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, we have been investigating and analyzing philanthropic options for more than five years. Providing emergency food to hungry families in the U.S. is just one of the many high impact opportunities our team has surfaced. In our upcoming High Impact Holiday Giving Guide we’ll share ten of our best opportunities for making a meaningful difference in people’s lives – in the United States and abroad. So be on the lookout for the guide, and in the meantime, have a happy Thanksgiving.